Be Polite, Learn Loads



The other morning, Patricia was heading out the door to work. We sometimes walk down together, as her office is on the way to mine. This morning, however, she was a few minutes ahead of me in the preparation stakes, so she was going on ahead.

As she was heading out the door, I impulsively called after her to be polite and to learn loads and we both shared a grin at that. Then she was off.

When the boys were small and heading out to the car to be driven to school, usually by me, Patricia would give them each a hug to send them on their way and she would leave them with the same piece of advice every day.

“Be good, be polite, learn loads and have fun.”

I’m not sure where it came from, apart from being a sound set of advisories on which to start any school day. It was always dispensed in a light-hearted, knowing, sort of a way and, one senses, it was received in much the same manner. Now that the guys are adults, the advice is still occasionally revived as they set off back to where they live now or when Christmas is over, and it is time to say farewell for a little while. It’s become a sort of a mantra, said with a shared smile. A warm little ritual.

Memory begets memory. It was only when I did my little resurrection of this parting advice the other morning that it came to me that my own mother used to also have a doorstep routine. Something she would invariably do as I was being packed off out the door to school in the morning. It had quite slipped my mind. Indeed, parts of it have still slipped my mind. But I’ll tell you what I recall and probably misremember.

I remember the ending really well. The part about the road. I’ll come to that. First there was the plastic holy water font on the wall at the side of the front door. A souvenir of Knock Shrine, it had a tiny, tiny basin at the bottom of a representation of a celebrated apparition and in this little well sat a tiny prismatic sponge which had long dried up of any alleged supernatural liquid. Still, undaunted by such details, I would reach up and dip my finger in and sketch a sign of the cross around my frontage. This face-blessing made up the start of the doorstep incantation. “’Name of the father, son, holy spirit…” said at breakneck speed so that it came out like one long word.” I’m a bit hazy about the next bit. The idea was that it was something I would say, with Mum’s encouragement, rather than something she would say to me. As I type these words, those other words from fifty-five years ago start to ease more into focus.

“Bless me and save me and protect me, and make me a good boy, and make me better, and mind me crossing the road.”

Yes, I think that’s pretty much it.

It sounds rather na├»ve now and hyper-religious but, as a family, we were neither of those things. We were pretty worldly, in our own way, even though the rituals and observances were still holding firm for at least another while. The doorstep ‘prayer’, to my mind, was less of a religious declamation and more of a simple mechanism to say, “You have a good day and mind yourself out there.”

Did my older brothers and younger sisters get this ritual too? I imagine they did. I must check in with them and see.

I wonder how many households had such early morning interactions. If the only two families I have ever been a part of both had one, then maybe it was quite a commonplace thing. If so, I never really hear it mentioned.

If I remember the effect correctly, it felt like been given a little bit of armour against the day. School had its challenges, as a small person, and every little helped. With our own kids, I would say it was less that and more a simple touch of positive reinforcement. Confirmation that they were being seen and that somebody wanted them to be the very best they can. If that’s the case, I’d say it worked out pretty well for them.

As for me, well the remnants of any religious inclination have long-evaporated, rather like the holy water in the sponge in the door-side font. But some vestige of memory lives on. A dim impression of being sent out into the world armed with some care and some regard, secure in the knowledge that I would be welcomed back in again when my day was finally done.

Isn’t that a little of what religion offers too?

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

Obviously here I'm reminded of Sergeant Esterhaus's parting words at the end of roll call in Hill Street Blues: "Hey, let's be careful out there." Never had anything like that as a kid. Prayers too. My parents were very religious. Our lives revolved around God. But prayer was something that kinda got side-stepped. We were reminded to brush our teeth but not to pray. Very odd. Mealtimes prayers too were one small step up from, "Rub-a-dub-dub and thanks for the grub." Again, strange. My best guess is that my parents just assumed I'd talk to God because it was the natural thing to do. Which, in my case, it was not. I'm not even sure I ever believed in God as a person, someone I could have "a personal relationship" with. The Bible was just a thing to be good at. In my mind no different to a maths textbook or a Shakespeare play.